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Image source: Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson has successfully reached the edge of space on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane.

The British billionaire flew high above New Mexico in the vehicle that his company has been developing for 17 years.

The trip was, Richard Branson said, the “experience of a lifetime”.

The entrepreneur returned safely to Earth just over an hour after leaving the ground.

He tweeted: I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do https://virg.in/4wYm #Unity22 @virgingalactic

Sir Richard Branson also said in a press conference following the flight: “The whole thing was just magical.”

The trip also makes Richard Branson the first of the new space tourism pioneers to try out their own vehicles, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

The height reached by the billionaire in the rocket plane, known as Unity, was 85km (282,000ft).

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Richard Branson was accompanied on the mission by the vehicle’s two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three Galactic employees – Beth Moses, Colin Bennett and Sirisha Bandla.

He billed the flight as a test of the space tourism experience he expects to begin selling to customers from next year.

“I’ve had my notebook with me and I’ve written down 30 or 40 little things that will make the experience for the next person who goes to space with us that much better,” he said.

“The only way sometimes you can find these little things is to get in a spaceship and go to space and experience it for yourself.”

Some 600 individuals have already paid deposits for tickets that will cost them up to $250,000.

These are all people who want to reach a height where they can see the sky turn black and marvel at the Earth’s horizon as it curves away into the distance. Such a flight should also afford them about five minutes of weightlessness during which they will be allowed to float around inside Unity’s cabin.

It’s been a long road for Richard Branson to get to this point. He first announced his intention to make a space plane in 2004, with the belief he could start a commercial service by 2007.

However, technical difficulties, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014, have made the space project one of the most challenging ventures of Richard Branson’s career.

X-37B, a notoriously mysterious military space plane operated by the US Air Force, has launched from Florida, the third flight in a secretive test programme.

The reusable, unmanned craft is designed to operate in Earth orbit for extended periods. Its prior missions in 2010 and 2011 lasted 224 and 469 days.

The US government kept the timing of Tuesday’s launch secret and has not said how long the mission will last.

That has prompted fevered speculation as to the craft’s ultimate purpose.

Tuesday’s launch had been pushed back from October, delayed by two satellite launches. Patrick Air Force Base in Florida gave notice of a hazard from a launch in a window between 10:45 to 17:15 local time.

The X-37B craft, designed by aerospace giant Boeing, shares more than just a passing similarity to the now-retired space shuttle.

It is just a quarter the size of the shuttle, but is launched on a rocket – the Atlas V. It is coated in thermal tiles to withstand the heat of re-entry, after which it lands on its own gear autonomously.

X-37B, a notoriously mysterious military space plane operated by the US Air Force, has launched from Florida, the third flight in a secretive test programme

X-37B, a notoriously mysterious military space plane operated by the US Air Force, has launched from Florida, the third flight in a secretive test programme

The stated mission of the craft, according to the US Air Force, is an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform”.

But the latest mission in particular sparked speculation that the craft was spying on the Chinese space lab Tiangong-1 – an idea that has since been largely discredited.

When it returned from its second mission in June, programme manager Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre said: “We knew from post-flight assessments from the first mission that OTV-1 could have stayed in orbit longer. So one of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration.”

But any official mission objectives seems set once again to remain secret.

X-37B – military spaceplane

  • Mission: Described as a re-usable testbed for new sensors and other space technologies
  • Length: 9 m Wingspan: 4.5 m Height: 3 m Mass: 5,000 kg
  • Origins: Started as a NASA project in 1999 before being handed to the military in 2006
  • Operating altitude: 180 – 800 km
  • Cost: The budget line for the X-37B programme continues to be classified information

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